Giving legality to certain wrongs
February 20, 2007
There are things that may be inherently wrong today but some time in the future these very things could become right. We see these situations ever so often when they involve matters of the court. Those of us who follow certain legal battles would often be surprised to hear that a group of judges overturn a previous ruling.
It is worthy to note that a ruling becomes law until a subsequent ruling changes it. This is the case in every judicial system. In Guyana, when the High Court granted an injunction restraining the City Council from removing the pavement vendors, that ruling translated into making it legal for pavement vending to occur in the city.
It was two years before the issue of pavement vending became illegal in the wake of the court overturning the injunction.
Similarly, it became law when the government of the day, the PNC administration, moved to acquire property under the Compulsory Acquisition Act. Nearly three decades later, the courts overturned the decision and returned the property to the previous owners.
Just last year, Guyana passed legislation making the age of consent 16. Until then, it was legal for 13-year-olds to consent to having sex. The argument was that certain cultural traditions dating back to the post-emancipation period in the 19 th Century made it necessary for such a low age of consent.
For anyone now to indulge in sexual activity at 13 would be to court jail. What was once the law is now an illegality. This is a case of modifying an existing law to make it more punitive.
And so it is that when senior police officers and magistrates met over the weekend they had to resolve the issues that often hinder legal proceedings, at least at the level of the magistrates' court.
The complaints by the magistrates were numerous. They complained about the absence of police witnesses, the failure on the part of the police to serve summonses, and the failure of the police to produce witnesses.
For their part, the police often complained that the courts failed to do justice to the hard work put in by the police. Often the police would firmly believe that the courts should refuse bail to certain criminals but the laws stipulate that bail is discretionary and if an offence is bailable then the magistrate has the right to use his prerogative.
Because of this law, many criminals are often arrested and charged, only to be released to commit even more crimes, sometimes some being more violent than the previous ones. It is this law that many police ranks want to see changed. They point to those countries that apply what has become the three-strike law in recognition of a baseball rule.
This law is relatively new, having been in force for less than five years. Prior to that, a criminal had the opportunity to move in and out of jail until he was tired. Not so anymore. The authorities have seen the need to modify an existing legislation.
And so it is that in Guyana we need to modify our laws to at least enforce them. It is the law that no child under 16 years should be out of school. At the same time parents are not being held liable for the actions of their errant children. The laws are just not being enforced. There are social groups in the country that would accuse the authorities of making life even harder for such parents who they insist are hard pressed to eke out a living.
Wrongs are being tolerated. The government had said that it would not tolerate squatting on Government reserves. Over the weekend just past, it appears that the government has recanted on this decision. The Housing Ministry reportedly granted permission for people to construct their homes on a reserve in Sophia. What was once considered a wrong is now being changed. A precedent is being created and although we have in our capital and other parts of coastal Guyana many instances of people squatting on the reserves to the extent that they are now seeking prescriptive rights, it was still considered wrong.
A recent development in Sophia seems destined to make it right to occupy reserves for housing purposes. The first waiver came when a previous administration permitted people to plant crops on the reserves.
One thing has led to another and pretty soon we may find even more things now considered a wrong being permitted and even legalised. But sometimes these things lead to falling standards and, in Guyana, given the decline in so many areas, one must now wonder whether we are not in too much of a hurry to accept wrongs and later, to make them right.